Jon Lester Isn’t the Cubs’ Ace, But He Sure Pitched Like One Monday

He’s inconsistent, a frequent target of misplaced anger, and prone to mental lapses on defense. Jon Lester is the Starlin Castro of Cubs pitchers.

I guess the one glaring difference in that comparison lies in the way the two players’ contracts are viewed. While Castro’s pact has long been viewed as club-friendly, Lester’s has been invoked ad nauseam like some kind of meatball mantra. Constantly referring to the man’s price tag is really no different from opposing fans bringing up 1908. Dude, we get it: the Cubs paid Lester a lot of money and he’s not even the best pitcher on the staff. Let it go.

And while that’s at least as much a function of Jake Arrieta’s ascendance as it is Lester’s performance, the fact remains that the Cubs bet big on a guy who gave up 7 earned runs in his previous start and allowed 5 stolen bases in the start before that. Fans see a guy who’s apparently suffering from the yips and they start talking about every single essentially being a double and how teams are now going to exploit this newfound weakness.

Is it really some new thing though, Lester’s inability or lack of desire to throw to first? No, it’s actually pretty well documented. Still, this is the first year the lefty has been taking the bump for the Cubs, so it’s understandable that people in Chicago would be paying a bit more attention to his performance. I’ll admit to harboring a growing concern for Lester’s throwing issues, but not for same superficial reasons others seem to harp on.

No, I see it as a mental flaw that has potential to manifest itself in other ways. In the top of the 9th on Monday, with the Cubs leading 1-0 and Lester looking as good as he has all year, a slow curve got loose and hit Ryan Raburn. No immediate harm, especially once Jason Kipnis struck out swinging for the inning’s first out. But when Francisco Lindor plopped a swinging bunt in Lester’s direction, the pitcher hung back and let David Ross hustle out to try to make the play. He couldn’t, and Carlos Santana singled Raburn home two batters later.

Did Lester underestimate how far the ball would come out? Did he just think Ross had the better play on it since he was coming toward first and would not need to field and then spin to throw? Or was the pitcher worried about having to fire the ball over to first and possibly opening the door to a big inning for Cleveland? In the end, only the one run came across, but Lester just standing there and letting Ross go after that ball reminded me of a non-play in his recent start against the Brewers.

You see, it wasn’t so much the 5 steals that got to me as it was Lester’s failure to cover first on a routine grounder to Anthony Rizzo. I could be getting my plays all mixed up, but if I’m remembering correctly, Ryan Braun should have hit into the third out of the inning. Instead, he made it safely to first because Lester was just standing there and Rizzo had no one to throw to. A run scored and Braun subsequently stole second and third before Khris Davis walked and stole second. Then Jason Rogers flied out and the Cubs went on to win 9-2 and no one cares about the flub.

But I do kinda care. I care because I see in Jon Lester a guy who has a tendency to let the game get the best of him at times. I love that he’s all fiery and that he’s a competitor, but I think those flames can sometimes burn a little too hot. I’ve seen him get upset with umps and get a little testy and I’ve seen the lapses like in the Milwaukee game and Monday afternoon against Cleveland. Now, all that said, Lester is a good enough pitcher to get away with it.

He showed exactly that against the Indians, going 8 2/3 and giving up just the one run on 6 hits and a single walk. And, perhaps even better, no steals allowed. Now, I was not able to watch the whole game so I don’t feel qualified to judge here, but I did hear some rumblings that perhaps Terry Francona was keeping his guys quiet on the basepaths out of respect for his relationship with Lester and/or Ross (h/t Matthew Trueblood). Even so, Lester did a great job of limiting baserunners in the first place, which is the real key here.

I guess what I’m trying to say is that despite the potential for gaffes, Jon Lester is the kind of guy who can buckle down and get it done. Monday’s game could easily have been a bit of a trap, given that it was wedged into a scheduled off-day and preceded a West-Coast road trip for the Cubs. It would have been very easy for Lester to be thinking ahead or even to overthrow in an attempt to make up for his last awful start.

But he faced off against last year’s AL Cy Young winner in Corey Kluber and more than held his own, taking a no-decision in the books but walking away with a team win nonetheless. What I have really liked about Lester this season is his ability to course-correct; he’s had his obvious issues, but he seems to be able to tackle them head-on and improve the next time out. Of course, the fact that he has had to recover a few times is also why I feel Jake Arrieta is the obvious choice for a sudden-death game.

That just means you can start the next round with a guy who’s posted a 3.44 ERA, 3.13 FIP, and 3.11 xFIP (if you’re not big on the latter two, it basically means Lester has actually been a little better than what his ERA indicates) while maintaining strikeout and walk ratios that are better than his career averages. I’m not trying to put the cart before horse and call any victories here, just laying out the obvious rotational order should the Cubs make good their promising play thus far.

Performances like the one Lester put on Monday are why Theo Epstein backed up the cash truck in free agency. He might not be the Cubs’ best pitcher, but he’s their most experienced and he knows what it takes to go down the stretch and win games. And with an offense like what the Cubs have been displaying lately, it’s not going to be often that Lester will have to hold the opponent to a single tally in order to win.

As we’re all clenching up and hoping to squeak these close ones out, Jon Lester just goes out and does his job. He’s far from perfect, about that there can be no doubt, but when the guy is on his game he’s absolute nails. I just hope he’s got a few saved up for the Cardinals’ coffin.

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